Yesterday I returned to Appleton Farms for the week’s share pick-up. And some harvesting of green beans and basil in the field.
Interestingly, one of my friends had mused about the nature of the CSA shares. Admitted that the whole arrangement seems exclusive.
My response? It began as a conversation, but I also did more research. Now I’m exploring the subject here, with you.
At first, I just wanted to say NO. Exclusive? Such an idea defied my self-image.
Me? My family? My friends? Of course we don’t belong to anything exclusive.
That’s not who I am. Who my family is. Who my community can be. We’re inclusive, I think. Because we want to be, and also because it’s what we can afford. My kids attended public schools. We’re taking out loans for college, because there’s no hidden savings account or trust fund to pay for it. Some of our friends are well-endowed, others live below the poverty line. My family belongs to the YMCA, not a fancy gym or fitness club. I wait months to get a haircut, so there’s room in the budget for it. We eat leftovers. We deliberately belong to a church that’s open and affirming, welcoming to all people. And of course, no amount of virtue or wholesomeness has ever protected any of us from sorrow or loss; we’ve all had our share of that. I don’t feel like someone who has a lot of extras, I’m not pampered or particularly safe from need or want.
On the other hand, we’re not desperate. We have a home and food, water and healthcare. I have a freelance career and a chance at education. My husband is intelligent, emotionally available, talented, healthy and supportive. My surviving daughter is graduated from high school, going to college, chasing her dreams. My community is creative, provocative, close-knit and as varied as possible, given our town’s demographics. So there’s all that.
So the idea of the CSA as exclusive? Me belonging to something exclusive?! Hah. No way.
Then I considered it again. If you’re looking at the CSA from the outside in, as someone who’s on the waiting list, or doesn’t even think they can afford the price, it may look different. If you don’t …can’t … live nearby, in this region of green lands and open spaces … if you reside in a paved and concrete neighborhood, where the only green things are weeds and traffic lights? It may seem … entitled … to belong to the CSA.
Admittedly, it’s a privilege to have the Appleton shares. But also the CSA shares might feel like they’re only available to privileged people. Like we all belong to a closed club.
After all, Appleton Farms, and any other CSA for that matter, is not a farm stand where you can drive up and pluck what you want from the offerings, and pay-as-you-go. Instead, you buy your rather expensive share at the beginning of the season. You’re committed ahead of time. And in return, the farm fulfills the contract by raising a variety of crops that will offer a well-rounded selection each week, June-October.
That model also means that you can’t just raise your hand and “join in.” There’s a waiting list to acquire a share. Since the farm only supports an estimated volume of crops, they don’t open up chances for new shares every year. You have to sign up and wait awhile to have a membership in the CSA.
As a business model, this works. But it could come across like a gated community, couldn’t it?
Also, the CSA shares are pricey. You can argue that across the span of months, the cost of the share and the amount of fresh produce that you receive will average out. But up front? It’s a lot of money. And a risk. Sometimes, certain crops fail, because that’s the nature of agriculture and vulnerability to weather and infestations, so you might have to supplement some vegetable types by buying them at the grocery store anyway. (Like the year without Appleton’s tomatoes, due to blight.) Realistically, to absorb the cost, some folks split one CSA share two or more ways, because families cannot afford the full amount or use the quantities of produce included in a single share each week.
Plus, you have to invest some time in getting your share. Drive out to the farm to pick it up. And ideally, spend time in the fields, picking more.
Of course, for practical reasons, you probably live close to the farm, or it wouldn’t be very accessible to collect it each week. So this CSA membership isn’t easily available to people who live in a more urban environment.
For all those reasons, the CSA can seem likes it’s a closed community, a resource for people with disposable time and income.
So what’s the response to this concern?
- First, every share is supporting a non-profit agricultural enterprise — Trustees of Reservations – that is modeling sustainable farming practices, using many of what they call heirloom-style (non genetically-modified or mass-produced) crops and traditional livestock species. This model is used for development and helps to test and exemplify the viability of such methods.
- Secondly, the Farm becomes a hands-on teaching center. Its programs educate new generations of farmers and environmentalists, as well as youth, and also the general public.
- Next, the Trustees make parts of their land and resources available to other organizations such as The Food Project, for growing fresh vegetables that can be made available in urban farmers’ markets. The Food Project grows its crops with a youth team that is being trained and educated, providing access to open space and gardens for at-risk kids who aren’t typically connected to the whole process of how food gets from “field to fork.” It brings farming models into urban areas like Beverly, Lynn and Boston. And donates some produce to “hunger relief organizations on the North Shore.” By partnering with organizations like The Food Project, the Trustees leverage their impact in communities where they don’t have a specific footprint. They make their produce and resources available in different markets; they serve additional populations.
- Notably, Appleton Farms provides some fresh produce to local food pantries. And sometimes has extra produce available at local farmer’s markets. They address a social responsibility to neighbors in need.
- The Trustees also work with teen volunteers and paid crew. Some work are on the farm itself. Some spend time in Metropolitan Boston or other properties, and gain experience keeping trails open and helping to care for open spaces, farms, parklands and historic properties.
Participating in an Appleton Farms CSA share? It makes all of these initiatives, the ones that I described above, possible. It allows farming to be accessible, educational, environmentally-friendly and sustainable on many levels. That’s the bonus.
Then there’s the selfish pleasure — immediate and individual — of strolling into the barn full of newly-harvested greens and vegetables, opening up a bag, checking the recipe board, and filling your sack. Putting on a hat, carrying your bag and scissors out to the field, and picking and snipping more herbs and veggies for your own table. I’ve already extolled the benefits of this experience: the goodness of the crops themselves, the promise of a shared meal and communal experience, the chance to put away from the freshness for later in the year, and the simple spiritual boost of being connected to the earth, the fields, the cycle of life and the world.
Imagine that by owning a CSA share, you are also creating jobs for at-risk youth and exposing teens from your own town and many other communities and cultures to opportunities in the area of farming, environmental stewardship and open space. Add that you’re educating the general public. Participate in a large effort to develop sustainable forms of farming and land conservationfor the future. Know that you’re feedings hundreds of families, some through the shares they own, others through farmers’markets or food pantries.
Probably I romanticize this experience. And its rewards. I’m sure I do. But I believe in it, too.
Of course, if you work in the fields twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week, for low pay and no benefits, it might not be fun. It could be sheer labor, and lacking in much of the spiritual energy that I find in my one-or-two hours a week of agricultural adventure. That’s another part of the benefit of the CSA; members are buffered from the hardest part of farming, the year-round grind and tedium and labor of it, because if we had to put in all that time and effort, we likely wouldn’t participate. The effort is shared instead.
Of course, some of you volunteer at Appleton. You get a firsthand feel for the more stressful part of farming. Some of you put in several hours every week. Others at special times, like during the garlic harvestthis weekend, getting hot and tired, sweaty and dirty, in the fields with the paid farm crew. It’s not all easy-peezy, belonging to a volunteer-driven organization.
Admittedly, even the effort of claiming your full share includes going into the fields, and it’s not always all fun. It requires bending and straightening, over and over. Physical exertion. Mess. Until you’re perspiring and exhausted, swatting away mosquitoes, wrinkling your nose at the overripe or partly-nibbled remains of leaf and vegetable on the ground where other critters have shared a taste of the harvest. Maybe bringing along irritable family members to help, and trying to keep them motivated. All in order to pick what you’d like to bring home.
Yet I’m usually relaxed when I leave Appleton Farms. For many reasons. I’ve been outside, away from my computer. Maybe I saw some friends. I connected with something bigger than myself (I say this every time, but it’s still true).
Sure, every visit isn’t prayerful, not if you’re racing storm clouds or debating with cranky companions (like small children). You’re grimy. Sore. Stinky.
Yet week after week, we bring home a bucket of flowers, a bag of herbs, and a load of vegetables. We come and go with friends, so it’s social. Usually, by the time we’re done , we’re also smiling.
The CSA? Often once you own a share, you divide it with other households to make dollars stretch, to spread out the time and labor of collecting produce, and to be efficient in use of the abundance. You wait for your chance. Then you extend yourself to afford it, to make it viable. And every dollar and hour invested, in order to belong to this sustainable community, is making that bounty available, in other ways, to other neighborhoods, families and people.
When you know what your individual farm share supports, it’s not exclusionary. It’s amazingly accessible and inclusive. It goes a long way to provide value for you, your family, your community and others whom you’ll never meet.
Yes, belonging to Appleton Farms CSA is also a privilege.